Wednesday Women: Finding order in chaos

Wisconsin Badgers Brittany Ammerman (10) shoots the puck during an NCAA women's hockey game against the Boston University Terriers on October 29, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers 6-1. (Photo by David Stluka) (David Stluka)
Brittany Ammerman (10) and her team, No. 1 Wisconsin, will try to break their losing streak against No. 2 Minnesota this week in Madison. (David Stluka)

Candace: There were a lot of surprises this weekend. Several games were ties between an unranked opponent and a ranked one, with several being big surprises. I’m not sure where to start really. Minnesota-Duluth’s result at home against Minnesota isn’t really too huge a surprise; it had to happen sooner or later, though I would bet UMD coach Shannon Miller is upset with only getting the shootout win after holding a two-goal lead in the third. To me, the big ones that stand out were with Hockey East teams, as unheralded Maine got a tie with No. 7 Mercyhurst, Northeastern could only manage ties with Syracuse and RIT, and Boston College was tied by St. Lawrence. I think that last one is where to start, simply because the Saints held BC to two goals in each game, including the one it lost. I mentioned last week that having a senior netminder like Carmen MacDonald could be a big plus for St. Lawrence, and she stood out against BC, making 41 saves in the 2-1 loss and 32 in the tie. BC had a trend last year of piling up a lot of shots and failing to score at key times; is this a continuation, or have we underestimated St. Lawrence?

Arlan: The trend of BC shots on goal and goals scored being out of proportion goes back longer than last year. As much as any team, the Eagles tend to have a sizable advantage in shots on goal in games where they come up lacking on the scoreboard; see the losses in 2011-12 as an example. It’s also entirely possible, and in fact very likely, that I have underestimated St. Lawrence. I picked the Saints to finish someplace goofy like seventh in the ECAC.

We saw in MacDonald’s rookie season that she can be a game changer. According to Chris Wells, MacDonald wasn’t healthy much of last season, so if she is 100 percent now, that alone can make a big difference. The Saints also got Amanda Boulier back after she missed last season, but because Mel Desrochers had a monster season on the blue line for them as a senior last year, gaining Boulier but losing Desrochers may wind up as a wash. Rylee Smith also graduated, and she was the final member of the top line with Kelly Sabatine and Karell Émard that was so instrumental in SLU’s run to the ECAC Championship in 2012.

Rather than viewing SLU in the scope of this weekend, consider it in the big picture. Clarkson’s ascension to the top has had a more adverse impact on St. Lawrence than any other program, not only because the Golden Knights are above the Saints in the standings and take a bite out of them in head-to-head meetings, but because Clarkson attracts players that once would have likely wound up at St. Lawrence. We’ve seen similar parallels with Dartmouth declining when Cornell rose in the Ivy League, and North Dakota prospering at Minnesota-Duluth’s expense. In that sense, SLU doesn’t seem to be poised on the brink of a return to glory days, no matter how many games MacDonald may steal as a senior. The challenge for the Saints this year is what happens in those games where they play a team that is at or slightly below their level; can they win the vast majority of those games where they have an edge, but not the depth of talent that they once enjoyed?

Another thing that the weekend’s results remind us is that a team’s first road trip of the season can be shaky. Minnesota has been a great road team, having won 45 straight road games before Saturday’s tie, but I remember how badly the Gophers struggled at Colgate to open last season. So let’s not be too concerned if BC had a slight hiccup when it ventured on the road for the first time, just like we shouldn’t have been too giddy over BC walloping the Orange when they made their first appearance outside of Syracuse.

I’m sure any lingering questions of just how good St. Lawrence is will be cleared up this weekend when Robert Morris visits Canton. Do you groan out load when you have to try to predict a game involving the Colonials? Sometimes I do; other times I just laugh maniacally.

Candace: I cringe and then groan at the thought of picking Colonials games. Luckily, we didn’t have them on our slate this past weekend. I’m not sure what is going on in Moon Township right now, but something isn’t right. On paper, the Colonials have the talent to be much better than their current 2-4 record.

However, in looking at their results, perhaps things aren’t as dark as they appear. They lost their two opening games to Bemidji State, but Bemidji followed with convincing wins over Rensselaer and Vermont; we’ll know a little bit more about the strength of the Beavers after this weekend’s series against Ohio State. The loss to Maine doesn’t appear as bad after Maine tied Mercyhurst this weekend. Giving up six to Colgate is pretty strange, especially four in the second. Jessica Dodds is not playing well to follow her fine rookie campaign. Her goals-against is 4.68, and her save percentage only .849. Senior Courtney Vinet has been far steadier, and if I were Paul Colontino, I’d probably play Vinet in both games this weekend against St. Lawrence.

Of more concern for the Colonials has been the paltry production from some of their stars. Senior defenseman Erin Staniewski leads the team in scoring right now with three points in six games. Senior Rebecca Vint, who has been the leader offensively for the Colonials through her first three years, has only one point in three games. Sophomore Brittany Howard, who tied Vint last season as tops in points with 41, hasn’t played in the last four games. Those two averaged 1.20 points per game last season, and right now their production is really needed. Vint hasn’t played in the last three games either, so I’m sure Colontino would be happy to get both of them back, especially since the schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Colonials, who travel to St. Lawrence for a pair this weekend, then host Northeastern for a pair, then play a series at Mercyhurst Halloween weekend. Even a healthy Robert Morris team might struggle to get above .500 in that stretch.

Speaking of Northeastern, I think we both expected more than 1-1 and 2-2 ties against Syracuse and RIT, respectively. Even if we go with opening on the road being a challenge, Northeastern can’t be happy with those results, and this weekend could be equally tough as the Huskies travel to Mercyhurst for a pair. We had Northeastern in mind as a team that could be dangerous to the Hockey East powers of BC and Boston University. Do we expect the Huskies to get stronger after an opening-weekend hiccup?

Arlan: Yes. When? That’s a tougher question. For its opening weekend, Northeastern skated seven freshmen and only two seniors besides goalie Chloe Desjardins, defenseman Colleen Murphy and forward Chelsey Goldberg. Other than Kendall Coyne, Paige Savage is the only returning player with more than 50 points in her career, and Murphy with 42 makes it only three players with at least 30 points as Huskies. Kelly Wallace, Katie MacSorley, and Brittany Esposito carried much of the load last season, so new scoring threats have to emerge to complement Coyne, Savage, and sophomore Hayley Scamurra up front. I’m sure that they will at some point, but until everyone settles into new roles, the offense could be spotty. Staying on the road through October doesn’t help. In a season where Northeastern could really use a quick start, it may not get one.

Next up for Northeastern are the Lakers, who are in a similar boat. As expected, juniors Emily Janiga and Jenna Dingeldein are atop team scoring with six and five points, respectively. Newcomer Sarah Robello has made her presence known, chipping in with three. However, seniors Shelby Bram and Molly Byrne have been quiet with a point apiece, so perhaps not coincidentally, Mercyhurst is averaging just two goals per game. It has been beyond stingy defensively, with senior Amanda Makela having three shutouts in four games; however, neither Providence nor Maine is exactly an offensive juggernaut. The early schedule is kinder to the Lakers, as they are home for the rest of the month. After Northeastern, a very young Minnesota State visits Erie, before the Colonials come calling to kick off CHA play. Mercyhurst’s schedule doesn’t ramp up much in difficulty, as a December game at No. 5 Cornell is its only contest against a currently-ranked opponent, although St. Lawrence, a January road foe, is receiving votes.

Of all the ties over the weekend, the one that I least would have foreseen was Quinnipiac settling for a tie in the second game at Penn State, 1-1. Rick Seeley was very optimistic coming into this season despite the graduation of Kelly Babstock. Seeley felt that the return of Nicole Kosta from injury and Erica Uden Johansson from the Olympics, plus the addition of freshman Taylar Cianfarano, would more than offset the loss of Babstock. While those three have contributed early, the Bobcats have scored only seven goals through three games. The tie with Penn State was reminiscent of last season, when nine ties kept Quinnipiac out of the NCAA field with just six losses. Do you see this as more of the same, or a sign of improvement by the Nittany Lions?

Candace: I think it could be a combination of the two actually. The Nittany Lions showed some improvement last year, and they have a Minnesota-Duluth transfer, Hannah Bramm, joining some established players like Shannon Yoxheimer. Penn State got shellacked by Minnesota in its first game, but then beat St. Cloud. Offense has always been an issue for the Nittany Lions, and so far, it has been this season. In their two losses, the Nittany Lions have been held without a goal. In fact, only four players on the roster have a point; that needs to change if the Nittany Lions want to have some success. If they can get some more balanced scoring, results like the tie against Quinnipiac might not be exceptions.

For the Bobcats however, that tie could hurt them in the PairWise later in the year. I don’t think we expected Quinnipiac to get an at-large bid anyway, especially with the CHA having an autobid this year, but if they are on the bubble, this weekend could loom large. Cianfarano has played well, averaging a point a game, and is tied with Kosta for the points lead. Perhaps Quinnipiac took Penn State a little lightly, but it goes to show that you can’t afford to have any letdowns in the current college hockey climate.

Another team struggling offensively is Providence, which hasn’t scored in its first four games. The Friars are on the road this weekend against Syracuse and Colgate, and if they are even to get to the coaches’ pick in Hockey East (fifth), they better break out of their offensive doldrums. You picked them seventh, a pick that seems more prescient after four games at least. Do you expect improvement this weekend?

Arlan: Probably not, although when a team is 0-4 and has yet to score, the bar is set pretty low, and things can change quickly when a couple of dozen 20 year olds are involved. It’s strange to look at statistics for a team after four games and see everyone, goalies included, tied for the scoring lead with zero points. I’m never sure exactly how teams such as Providence that don’t figure to be in the picture for an NCAA at-large bid approach nonconference games. Do they use them as warm ups for the conference schedule and experiment more than they would if standings points were on the line, or is it business as usual, just like league play?

In any event, the Orange and the Raiders present a less formidable challenge on paper than Mercyhurst and Clarkson did, so the Friars could make strides this weekend. Bob Deraney has 270 wins at Providence, so he likely has a good idea of what he requires from his team. Looking at the positive side, the Friars were more competitive from a territorial perspective in the second game of each series. How those adjustments will translate when playing two different opponents on the weekend remains to be seen. At some point, I’d expect seniors like Haley Frade, Beth Hanrahan, and Brooke Simpson to start finding the range and get the offense going. This concludes a long, convoluted answer that basically says I have no idea what is wrong at Providence, and I likely never will.

Before we get back to discussing more teams that are a constant source of bewilderment, what are your thoughts on the current NCAA overtime rules? We had eight overtimes over the weekend, and all ended as scoreless overtimes. UMD’s Miller said that she’d like to see OT played four on four, but I don’t like that idea from the standpoint that those results would have possible PairWise Rankings implications and could impact the NCAA field. If four on four is a better game, then we would play that way all of the time. I prefer seeing games decided by full teams as much as time and penalty situations allow. The only reason I find shootouts tolerable is that the NCAA ignores shootout results, so in the big picture, the shootouts’ only impact is on playoff seeding. During the regular season, ties are fine. I don’t require the instant gratification of leaving the arena having seen a victor, especially if artificial means are required to produce one. Would you change NCAA overtime, or leave it as is?

Candace: I’d leave it as is. I don’t really see the problem with ties, and having them skate four on four would, I think, kind of change the dynamic. Five on five for five minutes makes sense. As for shootouts, I’m USCHO’s NCHC columnist, so I’ve seen a few of those over the last year, and while it makes the points standings interesting, and obviously adds a crowd-pleasing element, it still seems like a stunt to me. I have trouble taking it seriously, although I’ve some players make some really cool moves when they score.

Let’s turn our attention to a team that isn’t baffling: Wisconsin. The Badgers looked mighty impressive in sweeping Ohio State on the road without giving up a goal. Wisconsin looks to me to be back to where they were a couple of years ago in terms being so balanced. The Badgers really seem to have a lot of ways they can win. Their offense has been the best in the country, averaging five goals a game, and six of the current top 10 scorers in the country are Badgers. The defense, anchored by goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens, is third in the country and giving up less than a goal a game. Both the power play and penalty kill are top five in the nation. Freshman Annie Pankowski is second in the country in scoring, putting up a blistering 1.83 points per game, and her classmate, Emily Clark, is in a tie for 10th. This could be the deepest Wisconsin team since their last national championship squad in 2011, and reminds of the days when in our picks contest, my mantra was, “Always pick Wisconsin.”

Do you think Wisconsin can reclaim the WCHA crown from Minnesota this year while holding off charges from Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota?

Arlan: I picked the Badgers in my WCHA preview, and nothing that they’ve done since has led me to think that was the wrong choice. I’m not basing that on what the scoring totals say, because Wisconsin has played more games than other teams, and the per-game averages can be similarly slanted early on after a team like BC has blown up the scoreboard at someone’s expense. The Badgers were at a talent disadvantage at forward a couple of years ago, but their last two recruiting classes have done a lot to change that, adding players like sophomores Sarah Nurse and Sydney McKibbon in addition to some that you mentioned.

The possible hurdle for Wisconsin is if there is a mental block where the Gophers are concerned. On occasion, you will see it with goaltenders who will play better or worse than their numbers against certain teams. For example, great as she was, Minnesota did very well over the years against former UMD goaltender Kim Martin, while former Badger Jessie Vetter owned the Gophers. Alex Rigsby was more like the former in terms of results versus Minnesota. Even in her championship year as a freshman, the Gophers had a couple of games where they were able to score against her, and she was in net for all of the recent 11 straight defeats. Now Desbiens takes over and starts a new chapter in the rivalry.

Desbiens doesn’t need to be sensational to beat Minnesota, just solid. The Gophers graduated three of their top nine forwards, and Maryanne Menefee has yet to play this season. No new lines have really manifested. The power play has been deadly, but beyond that, a handful of veterans, Hannah Brandt in particular, have carried the offensive load.

As for Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota, I’m not sure that either is ready to make a charge at the top. Both are trying to sort some things out, including trying their WCHA All-Rookie Team defensemen at forward. North Dakota is getting by on a steady diet of Meghan Dufault and Becca Kohler, and for the second week in a row, it struggled to score on Saturday. Josefine Jakobsen will be in the mix, as will Gracen Hirschy, no matter where they ultimately line her up. The question to be answered is who else will contribute consistently. For the Bulldogs, nobody is averaging a point a game through six games, and goaltending has been suspect in a couple of contests. I like Lara Stalder better on the blue line, so I’ll be interested to see where she winds up. We’ll get an idea of which of these teams is more likely to be a factor when they meet Friday and Saturday in Grand Forks.

What do we think about the defending NCAA champs? Shea Tiley has quickly established herself among the top goaltenders statistically. Can she stay there when the Golden Knights host Boston University and Marie-Philip Poulin?

Candace: From my point of view, the defending champs are still in a “to be determined state.” As we discussed earlier, Providence has offensive struggles, and shutting out the Friars on consecutive nights isn’t enough to make me think that Tiley is going to be the second coming of Erica Howe. I think this weekend will tell us a lot more about the Golden Knights, as will the game against St. Lawrence, with whom they split two weeks ago, on Oct. 28. If Tiley can keep Poulin, Sarah Lefort, Maddie Elia, and Rebecca Russo, as well as talented freshman Rebecca Leslie, in check, I will be willing to revisit that. This is really Clarkson’s first set against a team that has the ability to put up a bunch of points.

Offensively, Clarkson has been solid; they’ve scored three or more goals in three of four games, and considering that BU is anchored by inexperienced goaltenders, I don’t see any reason that Clarkson will suddenly be shut down offensively. A bigger test of Clarskon’s offensive potential will actually come in mid November, when the Golden Knights face off against Harvard. I think there’s a lot of potential with the Golden Knights, but they haven’t yet made my shortlist of teams I expect to see contend for the NCAA tournament championship.

Another team we haven’t talked about is New Hampshire, which with a 1-3-1 record has actually been in every game it’s played so far, with all three losses by a single goal. Getting points on the road at RIT and Syracuse this weekend has me wondering if UNH might be looking up. This weekend, they host Boston College, and in the last few years, they’ve given BC fits in the first game between the two, winning twice and tying them once. Will history repeat itself? Is UNH going to be in the Hockey East mix after its disastrous collapse last season?

Arlan: No and no, unless in the mix is taken to mean appearing somewhere in the list of eight Hockey East teams. My expectation is that the big ice surface in the Whittemore Center favors BC more than UNH. It’s not just that the Wildcats collapsed last year. Their fourth-place finish two years ago followed a couple of seasons of scuffling around closer to the bottom than the top. I just don’t think that there are enough pieces in place to do more than try to get on a bit of a roll and somehow get home ice for a Hockey East quarterfinal. Scoring seven goals in five games is telling. My column this week will be on New Hampshire under Hilary Witt, who got her first win behind the Wildcats’ bench at RIT, so I’ll save additional analysis regarding UNH until then.

Instead, let’s look at RIT as it travels to Vermont for a Saturday/Sunday series. These are two teams that the coaches of their respective leagues picked to finish in the top half, but not to be title favorites. Series that match such teams can be as important for the teams above them in the standings as for the clubs involved, because the results propagate through the Ratings Percentage Index. RIT and Vermont split a series last year, each taking a fairly one-sided victory. So far, RIT has been strong defensively but weaker on offense, while the Catamounts have been fairly middle of the pack on both. Ali Binnington didn’t play in the Tigers’ tie with Northeastern, and that was the first time they allowed more than one goal. In fairness to Brooke Stoddart, the Huskies likely present a better offense than Union or UNH. If RIT does well this weekend, the schedule sets up well to build some confidence before a trip to Mercyhurst Nov. 21 and 22. Vermont features a superior power play, so the Tigers would do well to avoid a special-teams battle, even though they have a strong penalty kill. I’d be very surprised if either team can score five or six goals as the winners did last year, so these look like games that may come down to a bounce or an OT session. The Catamounts have produced poorer results on Sunday thus far, so it would behoove them to come out just as hard in game two. Do you see anything else out of this series?

Candace: No. I think that a split is likely, and it will be a low-scoring affair in both. I suppose Vermont could get a sweep, depending on how its offense does. RIT has struggled to score even against teams that it should do fine against. A defenseman, freshman Christa Vuglar, currently leads the Tigers in scoring. They need some scoring from other players, like Lindsay Grigg and Celeste Brown and Morgan Scoyne. Admittedly, even last year, when three seniors were in the top five in scoring, RIT didn’t have a big point producer, so the Tigers look to be built from the net out.

I think the series comes down to Vermont’s Amanda Pelkey and Brittany Zuback against RIT’s Ali Binnington, and that’s not meant to slight Dayna Colang or Bridget Baker, who lead the Catamounts in scoring. However, Pelkey and Zuback, in addition to being scorers, are leaders, and really need to provide that if Vermont expects more consistency this season.

1 COMMENT

  1. After reading your analysis one can conclude that as of right now the CHA is at the bottom of the pyramid. Tying to NU this time a year doesn’t mean much. The huskies have started slow and picked up in the 2nd half for a few seasons now.

    BC does have the habit to rack up shots on which a big percentage of them are harmless for a good GK. They also seem to have a trend in the recent years with teams that most think they can beat but they get caught by surprised when constant pressure arrives. Add to this a freshman GK and all the sudden they don’t look so strong. With all this in place, the hope is that Carpenter and Skaroopa will adjust their game as it’s happening to generate more quality SOG. I rather a team get tested in regular season than to cruise by.

    As far as the Saints go, Bravo! between Macdonald holding the forth tight and the players in front blocking shots left and right, they stood up long enough against BC. Needless to say, savvy Wells got them full throttle for most of the 3rd period on the 2nd game and the Eagles pressured plus failing to clear the zone led to a tying goal. More of that for the whole game every time for the rest of the season and they might be the ones holding the autobid spot. Keynote: to beat your opponent get into their heads, if you can’t then pray to the Hockey Gods for good luck.

    I haven’t watched BU this season yet but the sense is that they have a really strong and dangerous 1st line, followed by 3 others that want to imitate. You’ll feel the lack of depth from time to time. GK is a big question mark.

    The match up this weekend between UW and UM has got to be on of the top to watch this whole season. Something tells me Johnson has a few cards under his sleeve this time.

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